Smoking, take two

smoking take  two

(Note: this is a rewrite of a blog I wrote back in 2011, with maybe a few updates, in the light of recent events.)



Both my parents smoked. I have distinct memories of sitting in the front seat of our family car, with my father in the driver’s seat on my left and my mother sitting to my right, both of them puffing away, the ashtray overflowing. I couldn’t breathe. I finally spoke up about it when I was about nine or ten years, and it actually inspired my mother to quit smoking.



This, however, didn’t stop me from taking up the habit myself. I got a free sample of Lucky Strikes at Fenway Park in 1983; I smoked one or two of them; soon after I was in Morocco, and smoking a pack a day; soon after that I was in Tunisia and smoking two packs a day.



I kept this up until 1998. Remembering the family proclivity for cancer, I resolved to quite when I was forty, and I managed it, just a few months shy of my forty-first birthday.



I have been reasonably healthy on and off since.



And now, fifteen years later, I discover that I have throat cancer, the main risk factor for which is – ahem – smoking.



Go figure.



I freely acknowledge that it’s my own fault. I knew there were bad genes on both sides of the family, and I knew that smoking could only be bad for me. But I kept it up for fourteen years.



Foolish, naturally. Most of those fourteen years between ’84 and ‘98, I was just smoking out of habit; I even (as do most smokers) kept it up while I was sick with colds and the flu. I even smoked at meals. I was smelly and utterly obnoxious, and probably nearly burned myself to death more than once. I realize that now.



But I remember one beautiful morning in Tunis, before I developed my two-pack-a-day habit. I left the house around 8am, bought a pack of local cigarettes, lit up, and –



That first puff was heaven.



So it wasn’t all bad.



But it probably wasn’t worth getting cancer for.


H. P. Lovecraft


As soon as I moved to Rhode Island, I discovered Howard Phillips Lovecraft. He was a local author, who died back in 1937; he wrote fantasy and horror stories and novels, often with Rhode Island / New England settings. Sometimes he used real locations (there are a couple of stories set in Providence); in other stories, he used New England settings, but gave them assumed names. (If you’re a follower of the Batman saga, and the “Arkham Sanitarium” means anything to you, you should know that Arkham was Lovecraft’s alias for Salem, Massachusetts – “witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham.”

In Lovecraft’s story “The Haunter of the Dark,” a man on the East Side of Providence (where I live) sees an oddly-shaped building on Federal Hill in the distance. He walks over to see it – and awful things ensue.

In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” a New Englander takes a bus to a little Massachusetts coastal town and finds that its inhabitants are not quite human.

In “The Dunwich Horror,” some professors from Miskatonic University (whose campus is, of course, in witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham) seek out a horrible invisible presence somewhere in central/western Massachusetts.

Lovecraft believed in something he called “cosmicism.” In brief: the universe is utterly incomprehensible to human beings, and is in fact mostly inimical to them. Almost all of his stories show human beings as foolish pawns, always on the verge of total destruction.

My favorite Lovecraft stories involve the Great Old Ones. They’re kind of hard to explain, because they’re supposed to be mysterious, but anyway: the Great Old Ones are extra-dimensional beings lingering right off to one side of our reality. They are very powerful, and they are just waiting to get back into our world. One is Cthulhu, a gigantic horrible octopoid god-monster; another is Yog-Sothoth, a mass of glowing lights. There are many others, like Hastur and Nyarlathotep and Azathoth (who “blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity”). It’s only a matter of time before they reassert themselves here, and once they do – that’s all, folks.

So, kids, repeat after me, before it’s too late:

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!



(It probably won’t help, but it couldn’t hurt.)


Eat more goat

eat more goat

I have eaten goat three times in my life (so far as I know).

The first time was in Morocco in 1984. I was visiting my friend Dave in Asilah, a lovely town on the northern Atlantic coast, and we decided impulsively to buy some goat meat and cook it.

We had no idea what we were up against. Goats (in Morocco at least) are tough. We cooked it for quite a while, but we still couldn’t eat it; the meat was wrapped around the bones like thick rubber bands. We gnawed on it for a while, but it was too tough for us. I think we threw it out and ate in a restaurant that evening.

The second time was here in Providence, maybe ten years ago. A work friend and I had heard about a good (and authentic) Mexican place on the West Side. Okay. Well, what do you order: something you could make at home, or something interesting?

They had goat on the menu. So I ordered the goat.

It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t wonderful, but it wasn’t bad.

The third time was just a few weeks ago. My student employee Joshua invited me to lunch at the Jamaican place across the street. They had “curry goat” on the menu. Well, once again: why not order something interesting?

“Curry goat” was delicious, and very tender. There were bits of gristle in it, and odd pieces of bone, but I think (when you’re eating goat) those are the rules of the game. Also, it came with fried plantains, and rice-and-beans, Caribbean style.

I’d order it again.

But oh my God: think of the poor little goat who died for this!

Tired of summer

tired of summer

It’s right around now, in late August, when I become tired of summer.



I am tired of humidity, and heat, and perspiration, and intermittent hot rainstorms. I am tired of this blurry blue / gray sky that doesn’t mean anything – not sun, nor cloud, nor rain. I am tired of feeling filthy and sweaty every day.



It was the same (but different) back in North Africa in the 1980s. There, it was dry from April to October. The temperature (in Kenitra, and Casablanca, and Tunis) wasn’t extreme – not like the Sahara, thank god – but the heat just went on and on. And the dust kept blowing in from the desert. By mid-August, everything was dull and dusty and filthy and too warm.



(Question: why do I keep ending up in warm climates? Why am I not living in Greenland, where I’d be deliriously happy?)



Here in New England, I start hearing crickets and grasshoppers in August, and it gives me some hope. I hear them first thing in the morning when Partner and I leave for work, and although it’s too warm, I take heart. It’s late August, I think. Not much longer until September, and cooler weather.



Autumn is the loveliest season here. It’s long and temperate and pleasant. The trees lose their leaves, slowly, north to south; Vermont and New Hampshire have their foliage season in September, but we don’t see it until early October. And apple season comes in September. (Partner and I passed a pear tree on a nearby street recently with pears that looked pretty much ripe. In August!)



It’s still summer, but autumn is right around the corner.



I can hardly wait.


For Ramadan: Harira


Ramadan began last week. I have some Muslim friends on Facebook, so I see lots of “Ramadan kareem!” messages going back and forth.



The Islamic months don’t correspond to the seasons as ours do; their year is roughly 354 days long, so Ramadan happens roughly twelve days earlier every year. In 1984, my first year in Morocco, the first day of Ramadan was roughly the first of June. (There was some trouble that year. It’s not officially a new month until the new moon is sighted in Mecca, and the weather was bad that year in Saudi Arabia. Finally, around the third or fourth of June 1984, Ramadan was declared to be officially begun, almost by default.)



Summer is a bad time for Ramadan, and June is the worst of all, because June days are the longest days of the year. Muslims are enjoined to fast from the time in the morning when it’s light enough “to distinguish a black thread from a white thread” to the prayer-call at sunset. “Fasting,” in this sense, means no eating, no drinking water (very devout Muslims won’t swallow when they’re brushing their teeth, and there’s a lot of spitting in the street going on, because swallowing your own spit might qualify as drinking), no sex, no smoking (tragic in a culture like North Africa where everyone smokes).



That first year, in 1984, I tried to fast. I couldn’t do it. I realized, after two or three days, that no one could see me eating during the day if I just closed the window blinds.



Later, in Tunisia, I was more casual. I knew I was a “kouffar” (unbeliever), and so did everyone else, so I closeted myself in my office and smoked and drank water and coffee to my heart’s content. One of my Tunisian coworkers, who’d studied extensively in Europe and who was very worldly, joined me.



Then, a day or two later, someone else joined us.



After about two weeks, the whole office was smoking with me, on and off. It was okay, because they were with an unbeliever, and I was exerting an undue irreligious influence on them.



Ah, kids, those were the days.



There was a restaurant in Tunis not far from our house, which was also not far from the az-Zeituna mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Tunisia. During Ramadan, about fifteen minutes before sunset, we’d go there. They’d seat us and serve us soup.



But no one ate.



We waited for the boy at the mosque to give us the signal that the evening call to prayer was complete.



Then, in unison, we all dipped our spoons into our delicious thick chicken / tomato / chickpea soup, and broke our fast.



Here’s a recipe for harira, the traditional Ramadan fast-breaking soup:





Makes about 12 cups

  • 1 whole chicken breast, halved
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 4 cups water
  • a 28-to 32-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and puréed coarse
  • 1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
  • 2 medium onions, chopped fine
  • 19-ounce can of chick-peas, rinsed
  • 1/2 cup raw long-grain rice
  • 1/2 cup lentils
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped fresh coriander
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • dried chick-peas, picked over water


In a heavy kettle (at least 5 quarts) simmer chicken in broth and water 17 to 20 minutes, or until chicken is just cooked through, and transfer chicken with a slotted spoon to a cutting board. Add to kettle tomatoes, saffron, onions, chick-peas, rice, and lentils and simmer, covered, 30 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Shred chicken, discarding skin and bones, and stir into soup with salt and pepper to taste. Soup may be prepared 4 days ahead (cool uncovered before chilling covered).




I find this recipe incomplete. It needs ras al-hanout, the traditional North African seasoning (you can buy it online, or make it yourself from regular ol’ supermarket seasonings), and some eggs (Ramadan harira usually has pieces of hard-boiled egg in it).



Also: if you make this soup, serve it with lots of Italian or French bread, for scooping and dipping.



And if you don’t feel like cooking soup the long way, especially during this long dismally hot summer, I’ve discovered that Campbell’s makes some very nice soups in plastic bags, which are pretty authentic. Their “Moroccan Chicken with Chickpeas” is a very passable Moroccan shorba, verging on harira.



Pinch a penny and spend a couple of bucks and buy a packet of it, and enjoy it.



With some Italian bread, and a lemon wedge to squeeze into it.



Ramadan kareem.


Sardines for dinner!


I believe that, if you crave something, you should eat it. Your body is wiser than you are, and if it’s asking for a particular kind of food, probably you should give it the food it’s asking for.



I crave sardines sometimes. I started eating them in Morocco in the 1980s, because they were cheap and didn’t need cooking and were good with fresh bread. Also, the Atlantic waters off the Moroccan coast are rich with sardines (or they were in those days).



I learned then that sardines are not always four inches long and are not born in little metal cans. The best sardines are seven or eight inches long, and are wonderful when you grill them. The Moroccan fishermen kept all the best and biggest sardines, and we ate them with pleasure in Moroccan bars and restaurants. The rest were shipped to canneries.



But even small canned sardines are tasty.



In Morocco, you could buy sardines canned with preserved carrots, and peppers, and tomatoes, and anything you might wish. They were all delicious. Here in the USA, you can buy them in oil, or with hot sauce, or with mustard.



They are pungent, of course. The house smells of sardines for a few hours after I eat them. And you really shouldn’t heat them up, because they stink like holy hell if you do that.



Sardines are full of healthy stuff: calcium (you’re eating their feathery bones as you eat their succulent flesh), iron, omega-3 fatty acids, phosphorus, protein. They contain next to no carbohydrates. They contain Coenzyme Q10, which is an antioxidant and does just about everything but cure cancer.



They have a bad reputation, I think, those dusty little cans sitting in the back of the cupboard.



Get those little cans out of the cupboard and open them and have a feast.



Live a little.


Good coloring

good coloring

Probably we all had at least one teacher whom we detested, and who detested us. Mine was Mrs. Velma Himmler, back in the second grade. (I’ve changed her name, fairly obviously.) She was short, and dyspeptic, and mostly angry all the time. I was very timid. We were like matter and antimatter.

Second grade was pretty awful for me. But this most of all stands out in my mind: Velma Himmler let me know in no uncertain terms that I didn’t color pictures correctly. I left white space between the horizon and the blue sky. Velma Himmler told me that this was incorrect and unnatural, and that my coloring was substandard.

I knew, even at the age of seven, that she was full of shit. For one thing, we were in the Pacific Northwest, where there was often a soft layer of white cloud between the horizon and the blue sky (when we were lucky enough to have a blue sky).

And also, more importantly: who the hell was Velma Himmler to tell me how to color my pictures?

Coloring, for children, is a perfectly uninhibited activity. You color what you want, the way you want. Zigzags? Perfect. Solid colors? Also perfect.

Then you get to school, and you discover that there’s a correct way to color your pictures.

I never thought of myself as an artist, so I didn’t take Mrs. Himmler’s criticism very seriously (though I’ve obviously remembered it after all these years).

But later I took up crossstitch. When I was in Morocco, I copied and improvised patterns that I saw in the local rugs – called “kilims” – and did them as crossstitch. I gave all my work away, so I can’t show you any samples, but I can tell you that they were lovely. They used every color. They were geometrical representations of fish, and people, and abstract shapes, just like the original kilims I was copying, and I was able to use all of the psychedelic colors of thread I’d bought over the years.

Good coloring? There’s no such thing. There are all the colors of the rainbow, and more. And shapes.

Kids: when you make art, use all the colors and shapes you know.

Use all of them.



Harissa is a Tunisian condiment, made from red peppers and garlic and olive oil. It burns like fire. In Tunisia, when you go to a restaurant, they begin by giving you a little plate of bread and olive oil and harissa; you learn, after burning your mouth a few times, the right way to combine them.

Harissa is delicious, once you get used to it. I, frankly, can’t live without it. But it’s not easy to find in the United States. I bought a tube of it – yes, a tube, like a toothpaste tube – in the Morocco section of Epcot in Disney World, over a year ago. I use it up very slowly, in eggs and vegetable dishes. And it always reminds me of my time in Tunisia.

My Tunisian friends always got a kick out of how Americans reacted to harissa. They’d trick them into eating it straight, and hoot with laughter when the Americans choked and spat it out. What fun!

Then an American friend spent a few weeks back in the USA, and came back with assorted oddball American delicacies you couldn’t find in Tunisia: nori, and graham crackers, and pickled jalapeno peppers. She and I were eating jalapenos straight out of the jar in ecstasy. “What’s the big deal?” a Tunisian friend said. “Are they hot?”

“Very hot,” we both said. “But delicious.”

“They can’t be that bad,” he said. And he fished one out of the jar, and ate one.

And my American friend and I hooted with laughter as he shrieked and ran around the house in pain, because the jalapeno was too hot for him.

Evidently, “hot” in one culture is not the same as “hot” in another culture.

Now: how about some nice wasabi?


Sometimes, when I walk home the long way, I meet a little black cat on East Manning Street, about a block and a half away from my house.

She invariably comes running to meet me. We have a little routine: I point at her, and she immediately rolls on the ground very submissively.

I don’t know if the little black cat does this trick for everyone, but she certainly does it for me. I choose to believe that Little Black Cat is the first recruit for my Unholy Army of the Night, and she will do whatever I say. (Well, she rolls over for me, doesn’t she?)

(Of course, this usually happens in warm weather, and the warm pavement probably feels good to roll on, when you’re a little black cat.)

I used to have cats in Tunisia. My housemate Catriona and I inherited a strange little cat named Nimmer (Arabic for “tiger”), who went feral every winter and came home every spring. Then there were all of the street / alley cats who used to come in to share Nimmer’s food. (I gave Nimmer sardines. I love sardines, and so did he. And so did all of the other cats.)

Nimmer used to wait until I lay down to read a book, then crawl on top of me and breathe sardine breath into my face. Also he had all of his claws, and he used them when he climbed on top of me.

But cats are cats. In North Africa, they’re allowed to run wild, to keep the rat/mouse population at bay. It’s not considered a good idea to feed them, as they’ll get lazy and stop killing rats and mice.

Here in the USA, they’re friendly and decorative.

(But, like the little black cat down the street, they can still be part of my Unholy Army of the Night.)

The recent unrest in the Muslim world


You almost certainly know about the recent unrest in the Muslim world, and the riots, and the death of the American ambassador to Libya.


I subscribe to a Tunisian news service – one of those things that just gives you the headline and the first sentence – and, last Thursday, it was “Le film qui tue!” (Translation: “The killer movie!”)


Oh no, I thought.


You see, this whole manifestation in the Arab world was brought about – supposedly – by the release of a movie mocking the Prophet Mohammed. This movie was – supposedly – made by a Jewish American.


Except that the movies was probably never made as such, and the man behind the project was an Israel-hating Egyptian Copt, who is (apparently) living in the USA.


More than that, though; the idea that the movie was the impetus behind the killing irritated me. Aristotle teaches us that, while guns may be the material causes of death, the real causes are the people who pull the trigger.

But then I read the article in

I was much reassured. True to my experience of Tunisia and Tunisians – thoughtful and intelligent – the author weighed the tension behind Islamists (who are spoiling for a fight with the West) and Islamophobes (who would like to spark a fight, and then create as much havoc as possible).

Both are to blame for the general situation.

Chris Stevens’s death is certainly the fault of the Islamists. I wonder if the simultaneity of the riots in the Muslim world has been very carefully planned (you’ll notice that it took place in September, not long after the commemoration of 9/11).

And the Egyptian / Copt / American provocateur, who produced the “movie,” also appears to have known what he was doing, provoking Muslim reaction at a very key time.

Partner and I are going to France in a few weeks. France (and especially Paris) is inhabited by a lot of North African Muslims.

We will let you know what we find out.

%d bloggers like this: